Bikeshedding and the Law of Triviality

Bike shedding occurs because the simpler a topic, the more people have an opinion and thus the more they share their opinion

 A commission was instituted for the following budgetary issues and the meeting was held to discuss all three:

a) A £10 million proposal for a nuclear power plant

b) Suggestion for a bicycle shed for £200

c) The annual coffee budget for £21

What happened?

First, the commission discussed the proposal for a nuclear power plant. 

It was too advanced for anyone to go into any detail and most members didn’t know much about it. 

A member who did it wasn’t sure how to explain it to others. 

Another member proposed a revised proposal, but it seemed such a big task that the rest of the committee refused to consider it.

Secondly, came the bicycle shed. 

The committee members feel much more comfortable expressing their views. They knew what a bicycle shed is. 

A debate ensured on the best roof to made considering various options leading to perhaps some savings. 

They took a long time discussing the roofing than they did for the whole nuclear power plant 

Finally, came the coffee budget. Everyone knew about coffee and loved the price and value. 

Not surprisingly they spent more time discussing the £21 coffee budget than in the power plant and shed combined! 

Finally, due to paucity of time, the commission decided to meet again to finish its analysis. 

Everyone leaves and is happy to contribute to the discussion.

Why This Happened

Bike shedding occurs because the simpler a topic, the more people have an opinion and thus the more they share their opinion. If there is something beyond our understanding or competence, like a nuclear power plant, we don’t even try to give an opinion.

But when we understand something, we feel compelled to say something, even though we may not have anything of value to add. The bike shed and coffee are easy topics. Everyone wants to show that they know something about sheds and coffee and have something to contribute.

With every issue, we don’t need to take an opinion from everyone. We only need to take opinions from people who know the subject and matter. And if we choose to contribute, we need to provide value to improve the outcome of that decision.

This is also called Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, coined by British naval historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson in the 1950s.

The Law of Triviality states that the amount of time spent discussing an issue in an organization is inversely correlated to its actual importance in the scheme of things. Major, complex issues get the least discussion while simple, minor ones get the most discussion.

Tactics to Solve/ Avoid

  • A “consensus” approach by the leader of the group – ‘I need an agreement before I can make a decision.’ which means someone else has to make a decision! The solution is simple here – the leader has to make a decision – good or bad!
  • But what can you do if you are not a leader? You beseech the leader to act like one. Ask them to make decisions. This is the most effective way
  • Specificity/ goal is important which means discussing a nuclear power plant, bike shed and coffee in the same meeting is a bad idea. Focus on the core topic with a clear agenda and goals. Avoid unnecessary triviality.
  • Restrict the number of invitees for a meeting. More does not make merrier but only creates confusion. Those who don’t have to be there, should not be there. 
  • The leader should decide what is important and what is not, how much time to spend on each topic and rapidly dissipate any lengthy discussions

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